"The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Lao Tzu
This should be the motto of all barefoot horses, because, in the absence of pathology and assuming the diet is sufficient, good strong hooves are grown in response to work.
In my previous blog posts I mention the four pillars of barefoot performance, namely Diet, Exercise, Environment and Trim. I wrote about diet previously Keeping the Ridden Horse Barefoot- the First Step; in this post I will address Exercise.
How far do horses travel in a day?
Tracking studies have shown that, in the wild, horses will travel an average of 15-20 kilometres a day just going about their usual daily business, and will travel up to 55km over 12 hours to get to a watering hole in arid living conditions.
The average horse walks out at 6km/h, so daily that’s the equivalent of 2.5 hours of brisk walking as a baseline. Your average U.K. livery horse in its individual little square paddock with good grass on tap will not be walking that distance.
How far do horses travel when ridden? An hour’s work might include 20 minutes of trot at 15km/h , maximum 10 minutes of controlled cantering and some walking; I would say a generous estimate of an hour’s work in the life of the average leisure horse is probably about 7 km, half the distance they would do in the wild on their own. Use your phone as tracker to see how far you really ride on a given day; I know I was disappointed.
The best hooves are those that work the hardest. Hooves grow in response to stimulus. Hooves grow in response to wear. A horse that does many miles on tarmac every week will have established a growth cycle sufficient to keep up with the wear; if the workload is suddenly reduced these horses are commonly reported to need trimming every few days until the hoof adapts. The more work the horse does, the better the blood circulation around the foot, the quicker the hoof grows and the better the quality of both horn and sole.
Hence why so many top endurance horses do well barefoot- they do enough miles to grow good hooves and then get the double benefit of self maintaining hooves and reduced concussion on the joints due to the hydrostatic absorption system contained within the hoof itself.
It is important that we don’t force an uncomfortable horse to move; that is obviously counter productive. Surface can be key. A sound horse freshly out of shoes should be able to move comfortably on a good artificial surface and on super smooth tarmac. If they can’t do this then my experience suggests that there must be undetected pathology, either in the foot itself or higher up the leg. These horses might need investigating for sub-clinical laminitis or other problems.
Some surfaces are surprisingly unfriendly; fine sand with variable hard chunks in it can be a very disconcerting surface; examples of this near us would be the winter farm ride at Somerford. Cal hates the sand here as it gives unpredictably until the sole hits an unyielding stone, so I always boot up for the winter route now. Yet he will eat up the miles on grass, super smooth tarmac, and very fine crushed stone.
When I transitioned Paddy, my first barefooter, the country lanes around us were very scary glass-like tarmac. There were roads with steep inclines that I actively avoided when he was shod; suddenly these routes were open to us and the previously terrifying slippy stuff turned out to be the perfect surface for barefoot hoof conditioning. The main canter track around the local common was sand, again a great surface to work on comfortably with the added advantage of exfoliation and thrush elimination. He was also on polo livery (long story) at that time so doing about 30 miles a week. Within 3 months Paddy was not only sound on the easy surfaces but trotted without hesitation at full speed up the limestone hardcore driveway. And he was super fit.
Initially we might have to find creative ways to get the feet started on their thousand mile journey.
Removing the weight of the rider is surprisingly effective. Groundwork is also an invaluable rehabilitation tool; long lining and working in hand allows us to observe and to influence how the horse uses his body.
If the horse really can’t move freely enough to get the thousand miles in around your local area then 1) look at your diet
and 2) foot protection should be considered.
Hoof boots have come on massively over recent years. When I transitioned Cal we were very limited in our choice due to his enormous Irish feet. We had to settle for Old Macs- they were super tough and effective for allowing comfortable movement but also heavy and clumsy. They were OK for general work but tended to fly off at canter and never felt like they fitted well enough for us to do any proper jumping in them. They did last really well though! We also tried Cavallo Trek on his back feet; although much easier to get on and off these also tended to twist around at speed and didn’t feel secure enough for jumping. They didn't get much use.
Then along came Scoots - these were a revelation. We are not even in the biggest size! They fit well enough to gallop and jump which means we can hack around the challenging stone tracks in the forest to get to all the good jumping logs and canter areas tucked away in the back corners. I don't seem to have any photos of Cal in his Scoots- we must move too fast LOL. Luckily other people have done better on the photo front!
Another way to increase movement is to make sure the horse does some work without you. A track system in the field will increase the miles traveled compared to a square paddock, particularly if the water and the hay feeder are at opposite ends of the tracked area.
I’m not a huge fan of horse walkers, however my trimmer told me about a set of horses she trims that go on the walker regularly; they have great hooves, suggesting that any movement is good for developing good strong feet, even if it is not done in best posture.
So to summarise, movement is key for healthy barefoot feet, as well as for healthy brains and bodies.
Achieve movement in as many different ways as possible; turnout, ridden work, ground work, in hand work, even the use of a horse walker; all these can all help you get to an adequate mileage.
If hoof protection is required, then by all means use it. By hoof protection I mean hoof boots and pads. Hoof Armour looks interesting, as do some of the clip on plastic shoes, but I do not class steel horse shoes as protection, because they impair the physiological function of the hoof.
And please remember to have fun with your horses. The journey of a thousand miles is a long way, and a long time; best to have some fun during the journey.
My name is Fran McNicol and I am an amateur equestrienne living in Cheshire, UK. I am a doctor, specialising in colorectal surgery, and my MD research thesis was on inflammation and sepsis. Through my day job, I understand and fix the human digestive system, and I know a huge amount about inflammation and the human animal, but the most useful thing about becoming a “Doctor Doctor Miss Miss” (MBChB, MD, MRCS, FRCS) is that I have learned how to read other people’s research, evaluate the evidence and then critically test apparently good theory on my own horses. My writing is therefore my opinion, and current state of learning, from 25 years of full-time doctoring, a few years working as a polo groom around the world and many years of keeping my own horses. I love training young horses, and focus on riding the sport horse both classically and holistically. I compete regularly in all disciplines at our local riding club especially one day eventing. I started blogging as a way to share the experience gained from taking a selection of horses barefoot and working towards the dream barefoot property. I blog regularly at www.nelipotcottage.com